“Don’t buck the conductor.” This was one of the very few bits of advice I received from my quietly practical but oh-so-shy dad.
As 4th horn and music librarian for the Pittsburgh Symphony for four decades, Christian Woehr II’s perspective on the orchestral world and who ran it spanned Reiner to Previn. His relationship with conductors was unique: as a player in the 40’s through 60’s, he pretty much avoided them; but as a music librarian and baton maker in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, he ended up serving conductors quite closely. Picking up a ringing phone in our household could just as likely bag you Antal Dorati or Mitch Miller. This was a situation that often freaked out my mother, Georgia Sagen Woehr, a PSO cellist known to hyperventilate at the prospect of sharing an elevator with William Steinberg.
It was in his second role that my dear dad gave a first boost to his youngest son’s composition “career.” Talking to Pittsburgh Symphony Assistant Conductor Henry Mazer one day, he mentioned his 16-year-old offspring’s composing obsession. Mazer’s immediate offer to play a piece of mine on a series of children’s concerts resulted in the monumental Rondo in A: three fun-filled minutes of drunken Haydn with screaming horn parts, futile bassoon warbling, a show-stopping viola cadenza for my teacher (Principal Viola Godfrey Layefsky), and final fugue.
My mom came home from rehearsal exclaiming cheerfully, “It wasn’t as bad as I expected!” Of course, as rank and file players, it never occurred to them to get me out of school to be invited to rehearsal. But I eventually heard the piece, on no less than eight PSO educational concerts, two of them at my own high school. I was even accosted for autographs from kindergartners. The next bona fide request from a conductor did not come for nearly forty years (this year, as a matter of fact.) It was again a freebie, and this time dear old dad wasn’t around to copy out the parts.
As such a thoroughly conditioned “orchestra brat,” relationships with conductors have operated like a ball and chain for me. When you’re taught at the deepest subconscious level that conductors are to be avoided like hospital waste or exposed wiring, it is extremely challenging to approach one with score in hand. There have been many, many occasions when, after two tedious days of subscription rehearsals, I couldn’t push a score on the maestro-of-the-week because I frankly felt more musical respect for the cleaning lady.
The taboo against betraying my long-suffering colleagues runs even deeper. When I do proffer scores to maestros, it is often on the same evening I am passing out ICSOM Conductor Evaluation Forms. And, of course, of the hundreds of scores I have dropped into the composer’s wishing well, nearly every single one has quietly drowned, as is the case with so many composers without managers, PR agents, or Type A personalities.
It is interesting to see myself in those same soggy masses of unsolicited scores my symphony librarian father used to dredge out for his maestro bosses. When my skills as an orchestrator were still dubious, it was expected and probably fortunate, but now, even as a hypercritical professional, when I find myself able to produce consistently high quality cohesive orchestral works rivaling Brahms (I can now also fly and walk on water), it is beginning to frustrate. My pile of unheard works resembles a recycling bin, complete with empty bottles.
Meanwhile as a professional orchestra musician, the new works I play (for pay, to avoid foreclosure on my house) range from “crappy” to “mediocre,” with the occasional “vaguely tolerable” as the splendid surprise. And, of course, spending as much time learning a wretched viola part as would have been needed to write an entirely new and original wretched viola part really burns. But hope springs eternal. Somewhere, over the repertoire rainbow, writes the next Bach. Somewhere. Somewhere.
But enough about others. Through the years, orchestral and chamber music players of all clefs have asked me for pieces, often paying real cash money for them. Positive feedback from people with no obvious agenda continues to grow, continually reinforcing my own positive feelings about finally finding a true voice. Momentous Compositional Principles of my own discovery (possibly discovered by others, but nobody I ever studied with) continue to excite and motivate me. My original chamber music repertoire grows and does get played, so my impotent whining is often rudely interrupted by great creative joy.
As such, I have been impelled into developing a supremely practical and efficient style, writing tightly constructed pieces mostly for strings, occasionally with percussion and/or winds, so that the things can be played with minimal personnel (one-on-a-part string sections). This makes for extremely durable music, music which still works under less than ideal circumstances (one rehearsal, 6 people, performed on a street corner with a burned-out light). As history has born out, durable music tends to be around for a long time.
Now, who picks the music for orchestral concerts? Why, the conductor, of course. It has always been this way. These mysterious, high energy life forms from planet Maestro, with their own strange accents, specialized body coverings, and strong alien cologne, travel here by means unknown with plans to take over our musical orb and assimilate our patrons. Resistance is futile.
Often forced to accept temporary alliances with Artistic Advisory Committees (nests of unusually noisy but powerless local orchestral inhabitants),the maestros and their artistic administrator droids present advance repertoire lists as “done deals,” needing only the obsequious “oohs” and “ahhs” of a few token musicians. On such advisory committees, I have witnessed first hand the tongue-biting that goes on among musicians as a conductor lays out dreadfully boring programs or totally inappropriate repertoire for situations. Why do we have a wretched Schubert conductor doing Schubert in Vienna?
Suggestions from musicians are listened to by Music Director with cheerful enthusiasm, but somehow never actually get programmed and played. As far as new music programmed by conductors, I can just imagine the swollen tongues if we actually knew how the disembodied titles sounded musically, let alone how alien they were for our instruments.
Of course, the players are from their own special planet too, with their own different environmental requirements and preferences. In the following outline, I would like to set out in concise, if grossly arbitrary, fashion these two different sets of needs. How do we bring the vision of the maestro and the real-music-for-real-people of the musician together?Perhaps by so clearly defining them, we can then explore the possibilities of joining them, with the end goals of better concerts, happier patrons, and long life for our art!On, Tebb!
Requirements (in order of importance) for:
Artiste Inhabitants of Planet Maestro (or, what have I learned about getting a piece to a conductor):
I Symbiotic relationship
A Bosom buddy with composer (It’s lonely at the top)
B Lice removal (I’ll scratch your back if …etc.)
II Pre-Concert Tale (Marketing Gimmicks)
A Great title
B Great program notes
C Attached soloist
D Astounding esoteric structure
III Fight and/or flight (musical concerns)
A Fast & loud
B Quintuplets within triplets over duplets
C Half a dozen unplayable harmonics within ponticello
D Sustained fff+, for no justifiable emotional reason
E Lots of hard notes in no discernible pattern(keeps violist/composers off streets and away from manuscript paper)
Inhabitants of Planet Player (or, what have I learned about getting a piece to a fellow musician):
I Quality is nearly everything
A Structural: thematic development, long range harmonic motion
i Emotional satisfaction
ii Clear variety in texture and mood
iii Rhythmic Grooves, fast or slow
iv Beauty without being cheesy
C Appropriate voice:
i Size, type of instrumentation fitting emotional requirements of each passage
ii No overblown shouting of shallow content
II Practicality is everything else
A Playability for instruments
B Limited specific parameters (length, mood, style)
C Amount of rehearsal time needed
D Price – They are paying for this out of their own pocket, which for an orchestra musician is not very deep
In general, players are basing their decision on whether to play your piece on what they’ve already heard and played of yours rather than hype. They want musical bang for the practice buck (example of high bang for buck: Brahms; example of low: Elliott Carter). They want to be able to mix it on a program with Beethoven, Mozart, and Bartok, with the new piece being just as good.
To give as a final, and perhaps melancholy, example of this important concept of Musical Bang for the Practice Buck, I offer an event from my first year in the SLSO. Coming in as an already seasoned player from another orchestra, I accepted all offers to perform the chamber music that came my way. First was an extremely difficult, substantial string trio by Eastman composer Sidney Hodkinson. Looking back on the situation, I see now that, with the amount of preparation, focus, and dedication I gave to learning this complex work, I was seeking a good first impression from my colleagues and tenure review committee. However, at that time, I also had no house, no spouse, and no kid.
18 years later, the composer actually asked if the three of us (all of which are still in the orchestra and can still see, count, and wiggle our fingers) would be willing to work it up again and record it. We all turned him down faster than you could say Engelbert Humperdinck Stockhausen. And yet, I sincerely feel that if this work had been scored for orchestra, a conductor might very well have been quite impressed by it, and we would have been compelled to turn our lives upside down for it.
This conflict of practicality versus absolute idealist power is surprisingly central to the day-to-day conflict and frustration in many orchestral players’ lives. Unlike most of my colleagues, I can go home and write what I don’t get to play. But I still have to play what I don’t want to play or write, and so my precious time on earth is squeezed between the jaws of professional obligation and artistic expression. This is nothing new for composers, but it doesn’t make coping any easier.
At least we now have this wonderfully organized forum to begin discussion and free exploration for solutions, for which I am most grateful to Polyphonic.org. Thanks for listening!